When my ADHD daughter yells and explodes out of frustration, I identify with her intensely. I can see the overload crowding into her head pushing all rational thoughts into an airless corner where the only way out is to react and react big or you’re sure you’ll suffocate.
by Frank South
“I’ve always known that there’s more going on inside me than finds its way into the world, but this is probably true of everyone. Who doesn’t regret that he isn’t more fully understood?” -- Richard Russo, Bridge of Sighs
“God, you guys -- I’ll do my homework after I eat, okay? Stop bugging me about every stupid thing every stupid second! You make my life a nightmare!” With that, my fourteen-year-old ADHD daughter, Coco, storms into her room with her bowl of mac and cheese, and slams her door so hard it sounds like a gunshot, which sets the dog on a barking jag. Between barks, I can hear Coco kicking the wall. I stand in the kitchen still holding the pot and spoon I made her dinner with, close my eyes, and keep my mouth shut.
I am not going to respond in kind. I am going to breathe.
Slow even breath in, slow even breath out.
I learned this from my last therapist. The therapist, who after years of slowly building mutual trust and rapport, deserted me to face the daily emotional pummeling of being a parent all by myself. So this nightmare, as my daughter calls it, is all his fault, the selfish creep. I should hunt him down and beat his head in with this mac and cheese spoon. But he’s not a selfish creep. He set me up with another therapist before he closed his practice. And I’m not facing this parenting stuff alone. My wife, Margaret, is right here, sitting at the kitchen table.
“Your cheese is dripping,” she says. Margaret has a less extreme approach to life. She sees the humor in both of our kids’ dramas. She watches as I put the spoon in the sink and wipe up the cheese sauce from the floor. Breathe in, breathe out.
“Are you okay?”
“Mmm -- hmm,” I nod, between slow even breaths.
“Your problem is, you take things too much to heart,” Margaret says and smiles.
That’s a phrase we picked up from Richard Russo’s novel, Bridge of Sighs, describing Lucy, a man prone to occasional blackout spells who’s nearly immobilized by love, family, guilt and obligation and who I identified with intensely. It’s become a gentle joke between us, because I do. I take everything too much to heart. It’s not that I get my feelings hurt; it’s that I get immobilized by compassion.
When Coco yells and explodes out of frustration, I identify with her intensely, too. In her eyes, I can see the overload crowding into her head pushing all rational thoughts into an airless corner where the only way out is to react and react big or you’re sure you’ll suffocate.
No matter how gently requests or questions are put to you -- and sometimes that’s worse because then it sounds like condescending “careful of the mental patient” talk -- but however it comes at you in a short amount of time or just the wrong time for you -- you lash out to stop it, but you’re also lashing out at yourself inside your head looking to break apart this wall holding in the overload and let air in -- just one second of quiet air -- that’s all you want, and in the moment, bright red rage is the only hope for release and you don’t give a damn about anyone else. A second later, you apologize and add that new bag of guilt onto the huge pile you carry around your whole life. And of course, the pressure of that guilt adds to the next overload.
So I’m always telling Coco, “No sorries, it’s all okay,” whenever she apologizes over small things, or even medium things. I think we need to forgive others their slights and slips as much as possible. But more importantly, we have to learn to forgive ourselves and, maybe with some help from others, work on adjusting how we handle things.
Coco and I both have been working on managing our tempers and doing pretty well at it. She told me what she does is slow things down and not talk. “It’s not that I’m not listening, Dad,” she says “I just don’t want to lose my temper and mess things up.” The more pressured she feels in her head, the slower she takes it -- whether it’s getting ready for school in the morning, doing homework, or getting ready for bed at night.
I don’t know what I can do about taking everything too much to heart, especially when it comes to those I love and value, but I can probably do better at shaking off the anxiety. I’ll work on adjusting that. I might try a little of Coco’s “go slow” approach myself.